Despite selling more than any other title in the franchise’s 28 year history, it would be a stretch to say there was a strong demand for a new Castlevania: Lords of Shadow title. Spanish developers MercurySteam paid no heed however, partnering with Konami to fundamentally turn the series on its head by giving players direct control as Dracula for the first time in a brand new, open world character action game. With a new lead, new format and a story heavily cribbing from the decades-long franchise history, it would appear that all the ingredients are in place for Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 to become an instant classic.
In the four years between releases, all aspects of gameplay have undergone somewhat of an evolution. Where the original Lords of Shadow was strictly linear and had players select missions from a list, Lords of Shadow 2 is a far more open world, free to explore as one chooses. Harkening back to the original Castlevania games, progression throughout the map is inhibited in various ways that are overcome with the cavalcade of items and abilities Dracula gains over the game. This freedom, coupled with a new, completely independent camera gives the player the ability to explore at their own liberty.
This, however, is not without fault. Without the tight, binding linearity of its predecessor, it is significantly more difficult to work out what ledges and grapple points to use next when exploring. To counteract this, squeezing the left trigger when climbing will highlight all handholds within the immediate vicinity. It’s an imperfect system that was clearly shoehorned into the game as a fast response to a problem, but as there are so many collectibles hidden within the game’s nooks and crannies, some players will likely put up with the inconsistencies.
Lords of Shadow 2 is completely filled with quick time events, as was its predecessor. Quick time events are lazy, unenjoyable gameplay mechanics at the best of times, so to see a title so lousy with them is disappointing. In the very first boss encounter alone, a new one would rear its ugly head nearly every two or three minutes. Failing the incredibly precise timing would frequently lead to death, annoyance and a lengthy reload. Clearly, somebody at MercurySteam felt similarly, as a small amount of digging in the settings menus revealed an option to disable these entirely. When disabled, the background videos still play, however, Dracula is always successful in his efforts. Even though there is an availability to disable them, it raises a fundamental question: if the developers knew they were bad enough they had to be removed, why did they bother making them in the first place? Who enjoys quick time events?
Combat has received less retooling, instead relying on the strong mechanics already designed. Similar to other character action games, Dracula has a wide variety of options in combat derived from few button presses. With only two primary buttons being used in combat, attacks can either be focused on an individual, or widened and weakened to attack a group. These attacks can then be modified with two types of magic, replacing Dracula’s blood whip with either an icy sword that restores health, or fiery Chaos Claws that deal extra damage. Successfully hitting enemies and evading builds a meter which provides extra “souls”, charging the two auxiliary weapons and allowing longer use of both.
Defeated enemies provide experience, which can be fed into the weapon upgrade system for new combat abilities and combos. Combos, when successfully performed in combat, increase their “mastery” percentage. Once it reaches 100%, that particular combo can have its mastery level fed back into the overall weapon mastery. Once the weapon mastery is filled, its strength is permanently boosted. Whilst the weapon can level it’s mastery over and over again, the individual combos can only be filled once, theoretically encouraging greater combat variance.
Unfortunately, however, the repetitive enemy design and frustrating fragility of Dracula work in tandem to ensure that only a small handful of possible combos are ever truly used. Dracula’s attacks are seemingly ineffectual to Satan’s cronies, most of who simply shrug off repeated lashings from the blood whip like they were nothing but the spores of a dandelion. Though it’s possible to counter enemy attacks and set them up for strong replies, any other enemies in the area will consistently rush Dracula and disrupt any combo being set up. As there are always so many enemies attacking at once and the strength of Dracula’s attacks appear so weak, there is never enough time to set up for his more devastating combos – rather, the same mundane combos are mashed repeatedly with little variation. It would seem that combat mastery is a strong, interesting idea lost in the wrong game.
The plot of Lords of Shadow 2 is a difficult beast to summarise, due to its turbulent franchise past. Whilst there were only two titles preceding Lords of Shadow 2 in its particular story arc, vital plot elements were only revealed in DLC offerings and titles on handheld platforms. Consequently, fans of the original Lords of Shadow who were not aware of this bizarre strategy will discover that the plot is mind-bogglingly bewildering as a result. The previous lead character, Gabriel isn’t even in the game anymore, having become Dracula at some stage between the conclusion of the previous title and Lords of Shadow 2. Hunted for centuries, Dracula murdered his own hidden son, using his blood to transform him into the vampire, Alucard. Years later, after he is bested by a returned Alucard and his own hidden son, Dracula is presumed dead. 1000 years later, Dracula returns again and is confronted by his previous nemesis, Zobek, who tasks him with destroying his other previous nemesis, Satan. It’s a mess. The story is riddled with plot holes and ridiculous contrivances and is ultimately too complex for its own good – a failing maintained from the original Lords of Shadow.
Aesthetically, Lords of Shadow 2 is frequently a strong demonstrator of just how much can be squeezed out of the previous generation of hardware. Over the course of the story, Dracula is taken to many interesting and beautiful locales with stunning art direction and architecture. Whilst the texture quality up close is not particularly flattering, the faces for the most part are fairly well done and the blood is as good as it has ever looked in a video game – which is lucky, because it is everywhere. Nearly every collectible or point of interaction in the world requires some form of self-mutilation on Dracula’s behalf – running ones wrists deeply on a blade, stabbing sharp spearheads though the palms of the hand, biting one’s own wrists open violently to spill blood on the floor. It is everywhere, it is grotesque and it is spectacularly well realized.
It would be easy to fill another half dozen paragraphs decrying the awful stealth sections, poorly designed boss fights, confusing double-use of currency or massive amount of collectibles, but it would be ultimately fruitless. I still stand by the original Lords of Shadow as a good game, but there is little to defend here. There are a handful of good, new ideas sprinkled within it’s over dozen-hour campaign, but they are so sparsely populated that they simply aren’t worth the hassle of discovering. A better approach to combat, more intuitive level design and a much better story would make this an enjoyable experience, but as it stands there is simply too much disappointment and damage to recommend this game to anyone. The fundamental fact is this: MercurySteam set out to make the first game in 28 years to have you play as the legendary Dracula, yet they made him as frail and unenjoyable to play as a reanimated corpse.